De Lima presses for Senate probe on China’s research on Benham Rise

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Despite President Duterte’s order to stop all maritime research by foreigners on Benham Rise, Opposition Senator Leila M. de Lima has pressed on her Senate colleagues to look into the “undue preference” given to China to exploit the underwater plateau.

In filing Senate Resolution (SR) No. 604, De Lima underscored the government’s obligation to minimize, if not at all prevent, access to other claimants to the Philippine territorial waters, including Benham Rise, now named as Philippine Rise.

She said giving undue preference to China in conducting maritime and scientific research in Benham Rise would provide the Chinese government easy access to strategic information that would endanger the country’s national security.

“Circumstances surrounding Chinese activities in Philippine waters show that China’s interest over strategic areas within Philippine territory present a danger [to] our national interest, including our national security, economic and environmental interests, territorial integrity and sovereignty,” she said.

By granting China access to the country’s territorial and extended waters, De Lima explained that the Philippine government is giving undue military and scientific advantage to China by providing them invaluable information over our territory and other surrounding areas, including the Western Pacific Ocean Region.

“Continued tolerance by our government of Chinese incursions over our territorial waters makes our government an accomplice, wittingly or unwittingly, to the Chinese plan of expanding their military and economic reach well beyond their territory,” she said.

Last January, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano confirmed that the government has granted China’s request to conduct maritime research in Benham Rise. Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque also confirmed that it was President Rodrigo Duterte who personally made the said decision.

Almost a month into the announcement and after receiving backlash from several political pundits about the decision to allow China to study Benham Rise, Agriculture Sec. Manny Piñol announced last Feb. 6 that Duterte ordered a stop to all research done by foreigners in the underwater plateau.

“If Piñol’s claim is to be believed, then Duterte’s change of heart shouldn’t sound as surprising knowing that the President always says one thing but does the other. Let’s not forget how Duterte promised to defend the Philippine territory against Chinese incursion, but he never asserted the country’s rightful claim over the disputed West Philippine Sea. The case with Benham Rise is no different,” De Lima said.

Note that China refuses to comply with the decision of United Nations (UN) Arbitral Tribunal invalidating its claim over South China Sea, also referred as the West Philippine Sea, and ruling that Philippines has exclusive sovereign rights over the disputed territory.

In her resolution filed at the Senate, De Lima noted that China may only be looking for opportunities to expand its military presence towards the Pacific by increasing their maritime activities over Philippine waters.

She cited former National Security Adviser Roilo Golez’ statement affirming China’s apparent military build-up, noting that the Philippines’ decision to allow China to survey Benham Rise gives Beijing an “opening” that could have “strategic implications” in terms of geopolitics.

Golez reportedly said that China might be looking for a thin layer of water hundreds of meters below the sea level called thermocline, “where there’s an abrupt change in temperature,” that would allow their submarines to freely operate.

Interestingly, Golez’s concerns complement those expressed by National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorezana last year when he ordered the Navy to drive away Chinese ships in the area which may be “looking for a place to put submarines.”

“With their continuous presence over our waters, China is continuously undermining our sovereignty, particularly through its positioning and activities in Benham Rise,” De Lima said.

The Senator from Bicol said the Philippines cannot ensure China’s compliance with any of the country’s regulations over Benham Rise, knowing that it “has already shown prior bad faith” by conducting studies in the underwater plateau even before they were officially allowed to do so.

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